Lit candles, 15 points and now no excuses - Celtic enter crucial spell in their season
There would be other stadiums where they might prefer to attempt this than Fir Park, though the reputation of it being something of a bogey ground for Celtic is somewhat overplayed. The Parkhead side have scored four, four and five on their last three visits. They did draw in three previous trips before these wins. This was long before Ange Postecoglou’s time, but the Australian knows his side can ill-afford do drop too many more points.
This international window has been beneficial to Celtic in that it has provided time to stop and take stock while allowing players to continue returning to fitness. They’ve also not had any issues with players returning injured from representing their international teams.
Such fears were particularly acutely felt during the World Cup qualifier between Japan and Australia in Saitama earlier this week, when Celtic had a player in both teams.
Tom Rogic was subbed off and Kyogo Furuhashi was subbed on – they were on the pitch together for just over 20 minutes. Postecoglou, who took charge of Australia at the 2014 World Cup, looked on nervously.
Delight when he saw Kyogo situation
“I was watching the Australia game in Japan with many lit candles, saying the odd prayer now and again!” he said.
“Australia lost the game but I was glad those guys came out of it unscathed. I’m still a fan and watch it with a vested interest in the country doing well and qualifying for the World Cup.
“But you’re also a manager and have other concerns. There’s no doubt I was delighted when Kyogo wasn’t in the starting line-up. I was quite happy seeing Tommy jog off with no issues, so that was probably my biggest delight.”
According to Postecoglou, both are now fine and ready to go despite the long journey back. With long-term absentees such as Christopher Jullien and James Forrest working their way back to fitness – the former will require “three or four weeks to get back to full speed” – the picture is beginning to look rosier for Celtic, whose new arrivals are also now bedding in.
Even Giorgos Giakoumakis, whose ability to pull a calf muscle in the warm-up before the Premier Sports Cup clash with Raith Rovers last month had Postecoglou checking back for any ladders he’d walked under, is in line to make his first league appearance, possibly from the start.
It all amounts to a manager now feeling a lot better about the possibilities in the next, undoubtedly crucial stage of the season.
Prepared for the next spell
Celtic face seven fixtures before the next international window and five of them are league appointments, meaning 15 points are available. Depending on how many Postecoglou’s side can secure – and the aim must be all 15 – then this period could transform their season. It could, conversely, complete the process of breaking it. Celtic are currently sitting in an unaccustomed position of sixth. Postecoglou believes a better-equipped Celtic can now make some inroads on the table and show some meaningful return for Ange-ball, which was attracting plenty of applause earlier in the season.
He always suspected the last period before the most recent transfer window would be a struggle. The way he explains it now, there will be fewer, if any, mitigating factors for failures going forward.
“The important thing for me is we are better prepared as a squad to tackle this next spell,” he said.
“Coming out of the last international break we were really thin on numbers. We’d lost [Odsonne] Edouard and [Ryan] Christie as well, then [Callum] McGregor and Kyogo got injured.
“Giakoumakis came in but he had to quarantine, [Cameron] Carter [Vickers] and Jota had literally got off aeroplanes and had to go straight in the side. You always felt it would be a tough grind for us in the last period of games. It was firefighting.
“I felt for the players because we were so restricted, even in terms of making substitutions. Guys like [Liel] Abada and Jota had to play game after game.
“This time we are just better prepared. It doesn’t mean they will be any easier or less challenging, but we will be better prepared for them.”
He feels prepared for his first visit to Fir Park, scene of some titanic Motherwell v Celtic contests in the past.
“All of the away games are really challenging for us and Motherwell will be no different,” he said.
“They have started the season well. They will be feeling good about themselves so it’s important we are on our game. We started well at Aberdeen then had to grind our way through the middle part of the game.
“We need to make sure we are more even in our performance. We’re not going to dominate like we do at Celtic Park but that doesn’t mean we change our approach.”
Memories of 2003
Postecoglou was referred back to "Helicopter Sunday" in 2003, when he was Australia Under-23 manager. One of his players, Scott McDonald, scored a famous double as Celtic threw away the league title at Motherwell on the last day to all but hand the crown to Rangers, who picked up the win they needed against Hibs at Easter Road.
“Now you are testing my memory!” he said. “I would have been watching it back then for sure.
“Scott was part of my 20s team at the World Cup in UAE in 2003 so I would have been tuning in. Scotty carved out a great career for himself, you could see he was really determined even as a youngster.
“He got the absolute maximum out of his career and good on him. He’s tackling coaching now and I’m sure he’ll approach that in the same way.”